Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Electronic Mail Etiquette

© 1995, 2011, Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I got my first email account last century, in 1988, which in internet time is a very long time ago. This was in the days before domain names—you know, those things like RexJaeschke.com, WhiteHouse.org, and number10.gov.uk—and email addresses were often quite long and contained multiple ! characters (called bangs). Since then, I have relied heavily on email for both personal and business use. In fact, today, it's my primary means of communication (that is, apart from talking to myself and my imaginary friends). The main reasons for this are that I communicate across (sometimes many) time zones, I often transmit text that is to be reviewed without requiring live discussion, I distribute travel diaries and personal essays, and I enjoy writing and reading good writing.

As I live by email, it is easy to assume that most other people do too, when—believe it or not—there are people who only use it on weekends—or Heaven Forbid!—on a monthly or even less-frequent basis. [To the latter, as politely as possible, "I suggest that you check your email as often as you check your postal mailbox. Otherwise, don't bother giving out your email address."]

In this essay, I share with you a few of my pet peeves and observations about people who use email. I also include an email-related paper I wrote some years ago, but which is still relevant today.

A Good Subject is Worth a Hundred Words

Apparently, many people aren't able to come up with an accurate, succinct phrase to describe the purpose of their message. Let's call this the message subject.

Now and again I receive mail with an empty subject line or for which the sender's mailer has added their language's equivalent of the text "no subject". As one of the first things one sees when creating a new message is the subject line, I have never understood how people can miss this. That said, these mails usually come from dear friends who are not especially computer-literate, so I give them credit for trying. I've also made suggestions to them over time as to how they might reduce the chance of their mail to me ending up in my spam folder and being at risk of being deleted without being read.

Every so often, I get mail from someone I know, but for which the subject suggests one thing, yet the message actually contains nothing whatsoever about that topic. What they have done presumably, is gone to their trash can of deleted messages, found one I sent them back when Adam was a boy [as in Adam and Eve], and "replied" to that, thereby incorporating not only my return address, but also that old subject line, which they don't bother changing. Perhaps they are lazy. More likely, they haven't set up an address book with my address in it, or their address book is so poorly organized that they can't find me. [Hmm, now how did I file Rex's name: Rex Jaeschke; Jaeschke, Rex; MyVeryBestFriend; WhatsHisFace, or The Devil Incarnate?]

Many of us who live by email place messages we've received into folders, which we often sort in subject order. This allows us to see all the messages about that particular subject. Of course, that only works when the message really is about that subject.

There are Good Reasons for Having a CC List

In days of old, when knights were bold, before word processing was invented, people actually wrote letters on typewriters (and some still do, including some well-known authors). In the case of business correspondence, they often noted—using CC—after their signature that a carbon copy of the letter was to be sent to one or more named people. Given the utility of this, it is no wonder that the exact same approach can be used in email. In fact, CC has become a verb.

To be sure, one can overdo the CC thing. Do all 27 people in your department really need to see this poorly written and entirely unnecessary observation that you made at this morning's staff meeting? [In fact, does anyone need to see it—ever?]

Say you are working on a project with another person, and you know that a third person is also interested in that project. You address mail to Person 1, and you CC Person 2. This suggests to both that the main recipient of the message—and most importantly, the one who is expected to reply, if a reply is needed—is Person 1, and that Person 2 likely is interested in the subject, but is somewhat peripheral to the activity. When Person 1 sends a reply, she should note whether anyone was shown on the CC list of the original posting, and if there were and they should receive her reply, she should chose Reply-All instead of simply Reply. Unfortunately, I get way too many replies from people who can't seem to understand that. As such, when they send their reply to me only, I then have to forward it along to the CC list I had expected them to CC. Sacré bleu!

There are Good Reasons for Having a BCC List

Just as letters might contain a CC, they can also contain a blind carbon copy (BCC). So, while any recipient will see the name of the primary receiver and all the CC'd people, none will see if there were any BCC'd recipients. And any recipient who does not see their name as primary or on the CC'd list knows they were BCC'd, but they don't know who else might have been as well. [Like CC, BCC is now a verb.]

Always assume that any message you receive was BCC'd by the sender to your local newspaper editor, your worst enemy, your parish priest, your wife and your mistress!

Even if you don't use BCC directly, you probably forward a copy of mail you've sent earlier, to others at a later time, which is simply a delayed BCC.

People with Lives Don't Need Extra Mail

It's an old joke that "If I didn't have bad luck, I'd have no luck at all!" Sadly, the email equivalent might well be, "If I didn't get spam or unnecessary CCs/BCCs, I'd get no mail at all!" I hope you don't suffer from that situation. As for me, I'd be quite happy to get fewer messages, especially those informing me I've won a lottery without even having bought a ticket, and those promising to enlarge certain of my body parts.

Regarding spam, I must say that my mail program's spam filter does an excellent job of putting true spam into a separate spam folder. Unfortunately, when I'm using mail on my laptop, the spam folder has often scrolled off the (smaller) screen such that I don't see that it has anything in it. As a result, some legitimate and important mail that was inadvertently filed there by my mail program, sits there for hours if not days before I discover it.

If You Want Me to Read It, Make it Readable

One can argue that if it doesn't fit on a displayable screen, it doesn't exist. That is, don't put really important stuff later on because many readers don't get that far or pay less attention as they go. Instead, summarize the purpose of your mail in the opening paragraph, so the reader knows what it's all about and whether or not they should spend their precious time reading further.

Beware reading something that so annoys you that you just have to respond immediately, and without censorship. By all means write a reply, but sleep on it a night or two before you send it. Hurried and/or emotional replies quite often are so poorly organized that they have the opposite effect to that the author desired.

Spelling and Grammar Do Count

Pretty much any mail program these days has some sort of spelling checker, and some might also check grammar. If you have such a facility, please use it. If you are too lazy to use correct spelling and capitalization, then I expect you are also too lazy to manage well the project you are proposing to me in your email. I "see" you as you present yourself!

Resist the Temptation to Share

The Forward button on mail programs should charge your bank account each time you press it. At least that way, a lot less mail would probably get forwarded.

The worst example I have of forwarded mail is that of truly stupid jokes. And the really sad aspect of this is that these are often the only communications I ever get from some people. That is, they never have anything sensible to say or share. Clearly they have no life!

Group Mailings of Personal Stuff

At the end of each year, I write a 4-page review of that year, which I circulate to numerous friends around the world. However, although it is tempting to send it to all of them in one big receiver or CC list, that is way too impersonal. Instead, I take the extra time to send it to each person individually, which also allows me to add something personal as well. I can respond to their news if they have done likewise with their own report.

It is my general policy to delete, possibly without even reading, impersonal "Dear Friend" mailings, even if they do come from friends or acquaintances.

My one exception to this rule is my travel diaries. I do distribute these to all recipients in one big (anonymous) list; that is, each recipient gets exactly the same message. In this case, no personalized message is necessary. However, I address the mail to myself and add all the other names using BCC, not CC, an important distinction. As such, none of the recipients knows about the others and if any of them replies, it comes to me only, not to all recipients like it would if I'd put them on a CC list. That is, in this case, Reply-All acts just like Reply.

Whether you send customized individual messages or you send group mailings, understand a potential problem of assuming these people actually want to receive your message at all. The only way for them to get off your list is for them to ask you to remove them, and that might be embarrassing to either or both of you. In my case, each year, I go through my mailing lists and weed out the ones for people from whom I have had no meaningful communications in the previous year or two.

Identifying Yourself

More than a few email senders have email addresses that do not contain anything resembling their real names. (What are they hiding? Are they insecure?) Most mailers have a way to add your real name as well, and if you do that, when mail from you arrives in my in-box, I can tell straightaway who it's from.


Like doing any other task well, being a good email citizen requires a dose of knowledge, some forethought, and more than a little discipline. In this on-line age, your main—and possibly only—communication with many people might be your writing, so make the effort to create a positive picture. And, for Heaven's sake, please think twice before you press Send or Forward. Now I did ask nicely.


Electronic Mail – The New Form of (Mis)Communication

[In 1995, I took an entry-level university course in English Composition. It had an accelerated schedule taking four weekends instead of 16 weeks. The final project for each student involved researching and writing a paper on a topic of their choice. Mine was on email. Although this paper is dated, it still makes sense in today's context when you include instant messaging and text messaging as well. I've dusted it off and I now present it here.]

The decline in the art of writing began in earnest with the introduction of the telephone. After all, writing a letter takes time and who has that anymore? And as the need for writing has decreased, so too has the emphasis to teach it. It's no wonder then that today the level of business English in the United States is 6th grade!

It is interesting to note that what one technology pushed far into the background, another technology now demands; to communicate effectively by electronic mail (email), one must be able to write well. And given the rapid growth in the use of email, there are large numbers of adults communicating using, at best, 6th-grade English, providing a lot of opportunities for miscommunication. So much so, that a whole syllabary has been invented to help writers and readers of email understand the real tone and meaning of an electronically transmitted message. These symbols are called emoticons, a contraction for emotional icons. Emoticons "are symbols created by arranging characters into a meaningful picture. Often they must be read sideways to be understood. For example, here is the most common type of emoticon, the smiley face or smiley :-), which can be seen best by tilting your head to the left 90 degrees" (Rose 12).

For a detailed description and discussion of emoticons, click here.

Another device used in email is the acronym. While this device certainly can save typing, it has become an integral part of the language of cyberspeak. The following table contains a sampling:






Basis in fact


On the other hand


By the way


Pain in the a*s


Frequently asked question(s)


Point of view


Face to face


Real life


For what it's worth


Rolling on the floor, laughing


For your information


Real soon now


In my humble opinion


Read the f**king manual


In my not-so-humble opinion


S**t out of luck


In my opinion


Thanks in advance


In other words


Tongue in cheek


No basis in fact


What the f**k!


No f**king way


What the heck!


In terms of interaction, writing is a passive activity. It usually involves thought and planning, and we tend to pay more attention to grammar and correctness. We can also produce and review several drafts if we wish. On the other hand, speaking is interactive and, depending on the number of speakers involved, may be one- or many-sided. The agenda is fluid, we are much more susceptible to emotional impact, and we pay far less attention to grammar and correctness. And in cases where we can see the speaker, we often glean a significant part of the message from non-verbal clues such as facial expressions and gestures.

Email is a hybrid form of communication, having aspects of both writing and speaking. At best, email is semi-interactive. Some electronic forums require participants to be "on-line" simultaneously. Their dialogue is interactive, however, they cannot interrupt each other; their interactions are electronically synchronized. Like speaking, emotions can easily have a significant impact when writing, to the point when a considerable amount of the dialogue is accusatory or disrespectful in nature. This is known as flaming. Flaming "is where people impulsively react to a message and send uncensored, emotionally laden and often derogatory messages—a practice that is almost nonexistent in paper writing" (Kelley quoted in Safire 14). Responses are often spontaneous, impulsive, and incautious.

Since the exchange is solely via the written word, emoticons and acronyms are needed to communicate emphasis and tone. For example, writing words in capital letters is the equivalent to shouting them. Hawisher and Moran wrote, "In writing to a screen, writers may at times lose the sense of an audience, become self-absorbed, and lose the constraints and inhibitions that the imagined audience provides. What would be censored in face-to-face confrontation or in a paper-mail letter may not be censored on email" (631).

A considerable amount of email is composed "off-line". In theory, this provides the respondent an opportunity to read a message carefully before replying. However, the ease and speed with which we can originate and respond to email is an important factor. Hawisher and Moran suggest that "While it is possible to reread a message many times the medium itself does not encourage much rereading and reflection before responding.

Further, if the original response is put off, the original email message may be superseded by a new one, In general, originators of email seem to demand a rapid response. "Communicating on-line involves a minor but real personal risk, and a response—any response—is generally interpreted as a success while silence means failure" (Feenberg 23–24).

There is conjecture that the electronic medium makes screen-text more difficult to read than print-text. Printed matter uses typographic aids and is organized side-by-side in pages. On the other hand, most email consists of loosely formatted text in one typeface, written on a continuous scroll. According to Hawisher and Moran, "Our own experience suggests too that readers of email messages have difficulty in sorting out the salient from the less salient elements of a message" (630). How best to organize an email message? Put the important bits at the front? At the very end? Try to pick a title that adequately describes all main points? These important questions have yet to be answered.

Email writing style can vary widely, even depending on the sender's profession. For example, some scientific users dispense with uppercase letters completely; changing case slows down typing. They simply view email as a communications tool and use it in a clinical way, much as they would a calculator. People from other professions often use a more friendly protocol involving polite introductions and elaborate signatures containing cute pictures.

In Shea's "Core Rules of Netiquette", she emphasizes the importance of good writing: "Networks let you reach out to people. And none of them can see you. You won't be judged by the color of your skin, eyes, or hair, your weight, your age, or your clothing. You will, however, be judged by the quality of your writing ... So spelling and grammar count."

Email is but one part of the electronic communication revolution. Another part is multimedia, which involves the use of film, video, animation, and sound. The current craze in this area is the obtaining of information from the World Wide Web (The Web), a set of repositories of information providing everything from a visual tour of the Whitehouse to ordering from a clothing catalog. "Considering the sorry state of literacy, there's real danger in even a partial abandonment of narrative forms and rigorous modes of though associated with logical arguments, where A leads to B.

Multimedia's forte is not reason, but hot emotional impact—the same ingredients that make TV news compelling yet less filling. Will the level of discourse in this country, already fuzzied up by television, sink to that of videogames? Or will the proliferation of information and new techniques to impart it initiate a new Renaissance?" (Levy 25).

Email and its electronic siblings are ushering in a new age of communication, around the block, across the country, and throughout the world. Like all technologies, the impact, both positive and negative, will be up to the individual users. At least they are getting more people to communicate and more often as well. And without communication, there can be little progress, in any civilized sense. :-)

List of Cited Works

Feenberg, Andrew. The Written World. Mindweave: Communications, Computers, and Distance Education. New York: Permagon, 1989.

Hawisher, Gail E. and Charles Moran. "Electronic Mail and The Writing Instructor." College English Oct. 1993:55.

Levy, Steven. "TechnoMania." Newsweek. Feb. 27. 1995.

Rose, Donald. Minding Your CyberManners on the Internet. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 1994.

Safire, William. "Safire on Language." The New York Times Magazine. 19 Jun. 1994.

Shea, Virginia. Netiquette. San Francisco: Albion Books, 1994.

Comments (2) -

  • Wally Paul

    4/22/2012 1:23:59 PM | Reply

    I deal with e-mail on the job so much that I've lost interest everywhere else.  I appreciate concise and to the point messages.  I will try to check my mail at home more often.

    Also, I hope I haven't sent you too many bad jokes. (SMILEY FACE)

  • Felicity Grosse

    4/28/2012 3:51:58 AM | Reply

    I'm in agreeance with many of your points and peeves Rex. When I am ruling the world I am going to remove the Forward option from all mail programmes!

    Now I'm off to write you an email and will remember, this time, to fill in the Subject line.